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How can Oxbridge begin to build anti-racist leaders of the future?

Updated: May 13

Nearly a quarter of the UK’s “elite” - five thousand individuals in high-ranking positions across a broad range of British society - graduated from the universities of Oxford or Cambridge according to a Sutton Trust review. And this is despite the fact that less than one per cent of the adult population has been educated at either of these institutions.

‘Oxbridge’ graduates are disproportionately represented in UK politics: they make up 50 per cent of Boris Johnson’s Cabinet and account for 24 per cent of all MPs; in the world of business, 24 per cent of FTSE 100 chief executives studied at one of these two universities; representing three per cent of all alumni, Oxbridge graduates are also the most likely to earn more than £500,000 a year.

A recent report by Business in the Community showed that Black professional representation has ‘barely budged since 2014’. Black individuals held just 1.5 per cent of the 3.7m leadership positions across the UK in 2019 compared with 1.4 per cent in 2014. In context, Black people make up three per cent of the UK population.

With such a divide between the overrepresentation of Oxbridge graduates and the underrepresentation of Black people in leadership positions - and with many organisations around the world putting the understanding of bias, diversity, inclusion and anti-racism into much sharper focus following the death of George Floyd - now is an important time to explore whether the institutions that shape so many British leaders are in fact doing enough themselves.

Degrees of unawareness

At Oxford, one can graduate with a degree in history without ever having to touch - at least not directly - on Britain’s extensive colonial past. Likewise, a first class honours degree in French can be obtained without engaging with any post-colonial literature, featuring the legacies of France’s vast empire.

Essentially, no matter what you study, the curriculum can distort the interconnected sociologies that have made the world the way it is today. Furthermore, the curriculum can often ignore the fact that knowledge creators exist (and have always existed) outside of white, western Europe. One can indeed leave university having the impression that white, western Europeans are more capable - or perhaps even the only ones capable - of producing knowledge, given that these prestigious universities have chosen to showcase only their work during the course of their degrees. Subject areas such as mathematics and the natural sciences are also victims of this omission.

Political incorrectness

Politically, the implications of having leaders who graduated from such an incomplete teaching system can lead to tragedies such as the Windrush Scandal and the Hostile Environment policy - where frameworks of who belongs to this nation are not guided by accurate historical analysis, but rather by historical erasure and undervaluing or disregarding the contributions of people who lived in territories governed by the UK and simply moved to other regions within this territory.

Making anti-racism everyone’s business

For the business world, this is a problem because leaders, who don’t recognise that knowledge creation has always been diverse, might not realise the importance of employing people who are a more accurate representation of society, and facilitating environments where it is possible for them to become leaders as well.

The research we have today is very clear: having diverse executive teams unlocks commercial opportunity. McKinsey’s 2019 analysis, Diversity Wins, a study of 1,000 large companies in 15 countries, shows that ‘companies in the top quartile for ethnic diversity on executive teams were 36 per cent more likely to have above-average profitability than companies in the fourth quartile’. For gender diversity, this figure is at 25 per cent.

Building towards a future of anti-racism

Thankfully, there are ways of ensuring that future leaders are anti-racist. Our research shows that Gen Z (those born after 1995) are the most politically-motivated members in our society. For example, more than two out of three 13-25-year-olds surveyed in June said that more needs to be done to achieve racial equality in society. Initiatives led by young people, such as The Black Curriculum, are doing important work to ensure a more inclusive teaching of history in British schools. Students care about what they are taught, and more conversations about the curriculum will result in those where all students, regardless of their chosen discipline, are instructed in scholarship that engages with the realities of empire, colonialism and race.

Currently, decision-makers at Oxford and Cambridge, institutions that seem to find it difficult to let go of tradition, are unlikely to initiate this conversation. Must it, therefore, be the students who demand to know more about the world they live in, and push to create a positive impact in the future?

What I’m hoping for is for students to graduate as empathetic individuals who recognise the often oppressive frameworks many people have to endure everyday, and to be able to work to dismantle these frameworks and create a fairer society for all. I’m hoping for institutions of learning to take responsibility for educating students on the history of racism in order to help build towards an anti-racist future.


Words by Vihan Jain, student at University of Oxford



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